The XX Factor

Stigmatizing Won’t Help

For a conservative,  Ross Douthat almost does a fair and balanced portrayal of the happiness study we discussed last week . He does not take the easy route and say that feminism is to blame for the “paradox of choice” that is making women increasingly unhappy. But then, after mentioning single motherhood, he slips in this doozy of a fragment: “some kind of social stigma is a necessity.”

Not the Scarlet Letter kind, of course, but a “new model stigma,” writes Douthat, who is a friend and former colleague. The very wonky sentence construction makes social stigma seem like the equivalent of cap and trade or a new tax policy. But the problem with social stigma is that it has to happen organically. During the ‘90s a social stigma got attached to crack, not because of anti-drug policies but because the crackhead was a dismal sight in the neighborhood and no one wanted to grow up to look like one. Prejudice has acquired a social stigma over time. So has spanking. But not because the New York Times op-ed page declared it so.

Douthat includes in his list of the “sexually irresponsible” who should be shunned: the “pregnant starlet,” the “thrice divorced tycoon,” and the “prostitute hiring politician.” But in this effort to seem extra fair and neutral he is avoiding the real problem. On people like Britney Spears, Donald Trump, and Eliot Spitzer, we have heaped lots of stigma, because it’s easy to do. The real problem, which is much harder to write about, is class and race.

Poor women of all races, but especially African-American and Latina, are far more likely to be single mothers. And here’s the rub - they are also happier, according to the study. Why? Because choice is a luxury. If the problem is paradox of choice, then it is more intense in middle- and upper-class women, who are facing more and more choices. Poorer women have fewer choices and a more settled identity. So you can try to stigmatize them, but it will only make them just as unhappy as the rest of us.